Sex & Religion: Five Traditions on Masturbation

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The first of a new series on sex and religion discusses views on masturbation from the perspectives of Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

woman holding vibrator isolated on white

Photo: liubomirt

Even within single religious traditions, teachings about masturbation vary widely.

The 2003 text “The Big Book of Masturbation” reviews what has been written about masturbation in medicine, law, philosophy, religion, and the social sciences. This post will review some of the book’s findings on teachings regarding masturbation from five different religious traditions.

Judaism: Yes, No, Maybe So

The Talmud prohibits masturbation, citing the flood in the Noah story as punishing the world with liquid, a response to men who had sinned by wasting semen: “Anyone who holds his penis when he urinates is as though he brought the flood upon the world…” Another ancient text compares masturbation to murder, as a man who masturbates “kills his own, and he spills very much blood.” In the present day, Orthodox Judaism is relatively less condemning but continues to frown upon masturbation, describing it as a “heinous crime of the highest order, a moral waste of an opportunity to share and instead using that opportunity selfishly.” Conservative and Reform Judaism, however, view masturbation as acceptable as long as it is used as “a form of release, of sexual pleasure, and of learning about the body,” but note that it should not be done obsessively or as a substitute for a heterosexual relationship. The Talmud also allows for masturbation if it leads to married heterosexual intercourse.

Catholicism: Pretty Much No

The Catholic church has taught that “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essential contrary to its purpose. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” However, circumstances such as a woman bringing herself to orgasm when it is not achieved through intercourse is seen as permissible.

Islam: If It Keeps You From Adultery…

Although the Koran does not specifically mention masturbation, many debates among Islamic scholars have occurred regarding whether masturbation is simply discouraged, or forbidden. Some view masturbation as the “least of available evils” that one might resort to “in emergencies” such as situations where one might be tempted to commit adultery. Other Islamic scholars have considered masturbation to be a minor issue.

Buddhism: Suffering or Pleasure?

Similar to other religions, masturbation has been discouraged in Buddhism, even though it was not mentioned by the Buddha. Buddhist teachings on masturbation range from prohibition, to acceptance for those who are not monks and are seeking temporary satisfaction. A key teaching of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by desire, which can inhibit spiritual growth. Thus, masturbation may be seen as not “sinful” per se in Buddhism, but an act that will ultimately result in continued suffering. Buddhism, like many other religious categories, includes many different traditions, resulting in myriad views. One author notes that “early Buddhist were determined and creative masturbators…” and in countries such as Japan, “wildly masturbating Buddhist nuns and monks frequently appear in Japanese erotic art.”

Hinduism: It’s Up to You (and Your Wisdom, and Your Tradition)

While Hinduism prohibits sex outside of marriage, masturbation is a matter of interpretation. Hindu teachings state that “intensely personal matters of sex” are “left to the judgment of those involved… the only rigid rule is wisdom, guided by tradition and virtue…”

Adam Fisher, M.A.

is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at Indiana University. Adam's professional interests include couple & sex therapy, parent education, and working with college students. His dissertation is investigating the effects of religious belief change on romantic relationships.
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